The hangover of transformation
There is much talk of the rise of populism throughout Europe. It is a new specter haunting the liberal democratic order. Although often used as a label, populism is neither a coherent political ideology or programme, nor fascism pure and simple. Rather, populism is a specific form of political articulation reacting to changes in the societal consensus. It tells us that politics “as usual” needs to be renewed or fixed.
In general, it is believed that the Czech Republic was relatively successful in its apprenticeship role of post-communist transformation. Indeed, for a long time the country was seen as a regional leader, a pioneer of successful transformation towards democracy and market economy.
However, more recently there is talk of “sliding” or a “return to the East”. Since 2015, the Czech Republic and the other Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – have been perceived as increasingly illiberal and xenophobic part of the EU.
What went wrong?
It is a complex nexus of problems, some of which are well documented in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) project which analyses policy making and democratic quality in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union. Here the Czech Republic falls into the lower-middle ranks in terms of democracy quality, ranking 25th out of 41 countries in the assessment.The SGI notes that “[w]hile civil rights are generally respected, the country’s detention of migrants and refugees has been strongly criticized on human-rights grounds. Public opinion strongly opposes integration of refugees. Discrimination against women and Roma is problematic.“
In social-economic terms, the country is trapped in the lower middle-income country range, with rising social inequality and a high degree of dependency on exports and foreign capital. A stagnant model in which minimum salaries are among the lowest in the EU characterises the Czech Republic, while dividend outflow is among the highest. This is certainly not what was expected to happen at the end of the convergence-based “return to Europe”.
The populist backlash
Since 2008, Czech society has suffered from a long hangover left behind by the transformation. The impact of the 2008 recession on the country was not especially severe. But what followed were crippling austerity measures imposed by a neoliberal government increasingly mired in corruption scandals.
In 2012, Miloš Zeman, a talented public rhetorician and provocateur with a good sense for populist PR, won the presidential election. At the end of the post-transformation dynamics, in 2013, came the electoral success of the Movement of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO). ANO became a vehicle for Andrej Babiš, a millionaire who can be regarded as one of the winners of the transformation, and who invested in media assets at the time of his entry into public politics. Babiš also had a populist touch in his successful electoral campaign against corruption, employing anti-political slogans.
ANO appears to be taking over as a new centre-right political hegemon with some populist nuances. The movement’s moderate populism disguises the fact that the symptom is proclaimed to be the cure. The slow corporate takeover which is embedded in the clash of interests between Babiš’ conglomerate Agrofert on the one hand, and political posts and the career of its owner on the other hand, goes rather unnoticed by ANO’s voters.
However, there is also an openly anti-establishment and illiberal/conservative stream of Czech populism. In comparison to Babiš and his party, many in this diverse stream remain on the political margin in terms of electoral support. Nevertheless, they have succeeded in shifting mainstream media and political agendas.
The strongest player is probably the Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) led by Tomio Okamura, which is expected to make some gains in the forthcoming fall election. While ANO’s moderate populism is a conjunctural and nuanced PR strategy, SPD is the force with a clear populist voice: anti-establishment, economically neoliberal (Okamura himself is a successful Czech entrepreneur) but also anti-EU, proclaiming the Czech national interest and values such as law and justice.
Anti-refugee sentiments and good old Euroscepticism
Euroscepticism has been a strong undercurrent in Czech politics after the 2004 Czech accession to the EU. The sharp fall of electoral support for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and the then-president Václav Klaus between 2006 and 2013 gave way to the rise of ANO, while the openly anti-EU message was taken up by others such as the SPD and the free-market utopians in the Free Citizens’ Party, Svobodní.
Now the crises of the European integration project and the EU’s democratic deficit, in conjunction with a series of events such as the Greek debt crisis, the war in Ukraine and now Brexit are also fueling Czech Euroscepticism in its populist articulation. The current anti-refugee sentiments of many Czechs have merged with older Eurosceptic or anti-EU ideas.
Refugee and migration issues in the European Union have also brought to light previously hidden differences within the EU. The Czech Republic learned to compete for privileges: first in the accession process itself and since then for structural funds and capital investment. Many Czechs regard newcomers such as refugees and migrants as outright competitors who are viewed as being welcomed by the EU without any rules imposed such as those that were imposed on the Czech Republic during the accession process.
The xenophobia articulated by many Czech populists is not just an identity panic exploited by phobia entrepreneurs, but stems from a genuine cultural loss arising as a side effect of transformation and globalisation: the dismantling of the welfare state, the reduction of the role of the state as regulator and guarantor of identity, cultural diversity and heritage as well as market liberalisation.
The populists offer a remedy to this feeling of loss giving quick and easy answers which draw a clear line between “us” and “them”. However, as the SGI report shows the actual number of refugees who have arrived in the Czech Republic in the past years has been comparatively small, approximately 1,100 between November 2014 and November 2015. The SGI concludes: “There are no substantial external threats, but the populist politics and style of media reporting leads to a growing perceived threat – of migrants, islamization and unified Europe, which are all presented as threats to the Czech way of life. It also leads to a cautious approach to issues of European integration.”
No left-wing alternative
The rise of populism in the Czech Republic is indicative of a crisis of the liberal model. We are witnessing the consequences of processes whereby neoliberal capitalism is devouring democracy by slowly destroying its social basis. Right-wing populism is merely the next instrument to tame popular discontent and postpone substantial change.
Nevertheless, the new populists are often intent on radicalising those policies which led to the crisis of liberal democracy in the first place. It seems that neoliberal policies based on a predominance of “economy over politics” have now been “domesticated” and repackaged by political figures such as Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic or Donald Trump in the US.
What is striking is the absence of a genuine left-wing alternative in Czech politics, either in a populist (such as Podemos or Syriza) or non-populist version. The door remains open for populist/neoliberal reactions to finalise the dismantling of democracy in its liberal interpretation.
Veronika Sušová-Salminen is a Czech comparative historian and political analyst. She holds a PhD in historical anthropology by the Faculty of Humanities of Charles University.